A tale of three statues 

Two Up, One Down

The text of history is never finished. It lives and grows and evolves — even in South Carolina, where time seems to stand still. It has a way of coming around full circle and biting the blind and the arrogant on the ass. That's what will happen on April 11, when a host of state, local, and federal dignitaries will gather at the Hollings Judicial Center downtown to unveil a statue of Judge J. Waties Waring.

Waring was one of those figures who goes through life unheralded, hardly noticed, until the moment he steps onto the stage of history to make a statement or perform an act which transforms all around him. Born in 1880, the son of a Confederate veteran, he was a Charleston brahmin, a Broad Street attorney, a man of wealth and standing in this conservative old town.

As a federal judge in Charleston in 1951, there was nothing in his personal background to suggest that he would be the man who would describe segregation in his dissent in Briggs v. Elliott as "an evil that must be eradicated." Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld his dissent in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down racial segregation in public education.

Yet, even before this milestone, Waring had challenged the racial order in two important voting rights decisions. In Elmore v. Rice (1947), he ruled that the state Democratic Party was not a private club and as such could not exclude blacks from voting in Democratic primaries. In that decision he wrote that it was "time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union. It is time to fall in step with the other states and to adopt the American way of conducting elections."

A South Carolinian to the core, Waring understood the rage and violence that could be directed at anyone who challenged the racial norms. His decision in Elmore had shaken the white establishment, but after the Briggs decision, the harassment and ostracism were so severe that Waring and his wife were forced to leave the city of his birth and move to New York. He would not return to Charleston until 1968, when his body was laid to rest at Magnolia Cemetery.

Now the once despised outcast is making a second homecoming with the unveiling of a monument. Ironically, his statue will join that of another great pariah who was recently memorialized in Charleston, Denmark Vesey.

Vesey was tried and hanged, along with more than 30 co-conspirators, for fomenting a slave rebellion in Charleston in 1822. For years, a loud and angry contingent of white Charlestonians had resisted any attempt to memorialize this man who had laid down his life for freedom. But in February, a life-size bronze statue of Vesey was unveiled at Hampton Park, reflecting a new generation, a new way of understanding South Carolina's tortured racial heritage.

And there is a third statue in this state that has drawn attention recently, including a story I wrote for the Charleston City Paper. The statue of Benjamin Ryan Tillman was unveiled on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia on May 1, 1940, but Tillman was no apostle of freedom and equality. He was one of the old South's most fiery demagogues, an advocate of lynching and white supremacy. (See downwithtillman.com.)

Yet, to the white people of mid-20th century South Carolina — including the ones who drove Waties Waring from the state of his ancestors and his birth — Tillman was a hero. Those people would be surprised today to see a statue of Waring at the Hollings Judicial Center on Meeting Street. They would be stunned to see Vesey memorialized in Hampton Park a couple of miles away. How long will it take before we can spin them in their graves with the removal of "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman from the front of the Statehouse?

Statues of public figures — like buildings and laws and majestic bridges — are often described at their creation as products of genius and courage, meant to stand for all time. Yet, they are merely expedients. They speak to the moment, they fill the needs of those who created them. When those people and those needs pass, so too do their laws and their monuments.

After reading Waring's decision in 1951, local NAACP leader A. J. Clement Jr. wrote to Waring that "Americans will thank God for you in the future, and at some later date the South will raise a monument to you."

No one publicly predicted in 1940 that the Tillman statue would one day be brought down, but that was surely whispered and murmured about in the black community. It's time to make those prophesies come true. Such evil things cannot endure.

Will Moredock blogs at willmoredock.com

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